Another Labour Day, another bad year for Canada’s unions

Andy Radia
Politics Reporter
Canada Politics

Labour Day is meant to be a day to celebrate workers' rights and to reflect upon the sacrifices of those before us who helped enshrine safety, fairness and dignity in the workplace.

For Canada's 'labour movement,' however, this hasn't been a banner year.

Over the past year, throughout the country, public sector unions have been forced into significant concessions.

In British Columbia, teachers were required to accept a net-zero wage increase with the Christy Clark government decrying 'tough economic times.'

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In Ontario, the Liberal government signed a deal with the English Catholic Teachers Association, which will essentially freeze wages and force teachers to take three unpaid days off a year.

Premier Dalton McGuinty has also taken aim at doctors' fees, bankable sick days for police officers and firefighters and now has his eye on wage freezes for the broader public sector.

Federally, the Harper government has continued its tough stance on the unions as well.

As part of their austerity budgets, the federal government is in the midst of cutting 29,600 public sector union jobs between now and 2015.

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And it's not only the public sector unions that have faced the wrath of the Tories.  After intervening in the Air Canada lockout in 2011, the Harper government moved-in and legislated striking Canadian Pacific Rail employees back to work.

Workers also fared poorly in the Electro Motive Diesel locomotive plant dispute in London and the Rio Tinto Alcan lockout in Alma, Québec.

Is all this an assault on labour rights, as some union groups have suggested?

If it is, the public seems to support it.

According to a report by Forum Research, released last week, only 50 per cent of Canadians agree that unions have made a positive contribution to their lifestyle, while 38 per cent disagree.

Moreover, the majority of Canadians (57 per cent) agree that the government should legislate striking employees back to work when airlines, railroads, or the post office are involved.

Essentially, unions are loosing their relevance.

According to a recent article in the Vancouver Sun, since the 1970s, Canadians have been walking away from union shops in droves.  In the private sector, union membership peaked in the 1970s, and has now fallen by about half to 17 per cent or fewer than one in five workers.

They're losing at the the negotiating table, they're losing the battle of public opinion and they continue to lose members.

Labour Day 2012 is not a good day for Canada's unions.

(CP image of Ontario teachers rallying in front of Queen's Park)